Pitchfork talks with Karl Simon of Gates Of Slumber about Saint Vitus, Celtic Frost, Conan and everything metal in between.
Column: Show No Mercy
Column by Brandon Stosuy
Next week, Indianapolis trio the Gates of Slumber are releasing their third album, Conquerer, the follow-up to 2006's Suffer No Guilt. The band-- vocalist/guitarist Karl Simon, bassist Jason McCash, and drummer Bob Fouts-- formed in the late 1990s, but have taken their time putting together a certified crap-free oeuvre. I caught up with Simon to discuss the new album, along with his longstanding obsession with the fantasy author Robert E. Howard and the band's awesome post-St. Vitus sound. McCash jumped in to explain the band's Darfur tune, "Children of Satan".
Pitchfork: What's going in Indianapolis these days?
Karl Simon: Same as usual. Indy tends to be a sleepy town. Right now I'm in Germany for a visit and it's even sleepier. Just north of Hamburg reminds me of how it used to be 20 minutes outside [Indianapolis'] 465 loop about 20 years ago: Nice and quiet, rural actually. There are cows within walking distance of here and it actually smells like spring and not a Taco Bell. The stars are just starting to come out. It's very sad to mark how horrible the air and light pollution has become in Indy. When I was a kid I could see stars all the time. Now it's an urban toilet, a real shame.
Pitchfork: Musically, Gates of Slumber are tapping into a St. Vitus, Black Sabbath, Pentagram-style doom sound and Conqueror was recorded in analog. Are you intentionally rejecting contemporary digital recording and sounds?
KS: Well, yes and no. I reject contemporary notions about music as it's written. I prefer the styles affected in the 70s and 80s: That was the real time for heavy metal. I don't know how strong those influences are on this album, but for sure they are there-- at least Saint Vitus. To be honest, I don't even listen to Pentagram anymore. I have the records, but I never play them. Vitus on the other hand was a really magical band. There was something there that one can't explain. On paper the thing shouldn't have worked, but it did and is responsible for some of the best music ever. I defy anyone to point to a heavy metal band of that era that has more soul and power. I don't think you can do it. There were great bands, but few and far between created such weird and awesome music-- and in such an original and lo-fi way. I would love to get a semi-clean video of an early Vitus set playing in front of a crowd of hardcores.
Another huge influence would be the music of Cirith Ungol-- there is a lot of Ungol and Saint Vitus on this record; also late Black Sabbath, the Tony Martin era. I'm currently obsessed with Lucifer's Friend, Cirith Ungol, and the Eternal Idol, Headless Cross and TYR records by Sabbath. Also, that new stuff that Black Sabbath is doing with Dio.... holy fucking hell, can anything legally be that heavy? I mean aren't there statutes or something about that?
So if Conqueror sounds like anything, it's probably a mash of all that mixed in with a heavy dose of Wagner, a strong mix of Basil Poldouris, and a dash of Deep Purple or Budgie for flavor. But with regards to the recording, it has, until this last record, always been done by the skin of our teeth, so in the past the most cost-effective way has been to use a computer. But we've managed to get our sound, and I think a good part of our soul, onto the virtual tape as it were. This time out it was 2" tape, and while in the past I was one to scoff at the audiophiles who swear by analog only...I'm forced to eat my words a bit. Tape does have a special sound. Of course it's also the engineer too. Sanford [Parker] is a genius...and something like the master of a dying, if not lost, art.
Pitchfork: How important is it to you to maintain this more classic metal approach? Obviously you're bringing innovations to these older sounds, but you're paying homage to the lineage.
KS: I can't say it's by design or not by design, it's simply what I do; what we do really, as a band. I've never played guitar in another band. Sure, I've done other bands as a singer or as a bassist or both, but lead guitar, no. I've never been more than mildly curious about what would happen if I did play in another band. I pick up the guitar and start to riff and the Gates of Slumber stuff starts to come out: My favorite chord progressions, my favorite rhythms to play. There is no design, per se. The music that I play is what comes out of me-- I toy around with thrash rhythms and what not, but that is boring to me, and it never gets beyond just toying around. As a band we play around with that stuff in rehearsal, but it feels fake to me-- it's not what we do; not what I do. If we were ever to tackle a different style of metal I think that it would end up being very different than what was originally intended. It could be interesting but, frankly, I just play what I like, and if other people enjoy it as well that is awesome, but it's not a motivation at all.
Pitchfork: You talk about classic Dio, Iron Maiden, Celtic Frost, Ozzy, Motörhead in the liner notes. Are you digging any contemporary bands?
KS: I like quite a few modern bands, but many are deep in the underground. A short list of favorites that are current would be Slough Feg, Orordruin, Ironsword, the Lamp of Thoth, Lord Vicar, Warning-- a band that is currently shifting the landscape of what metal can be I think, Midnight. I'm one of the people who actually champions new stuff in metal. I'm not a nostalgic by nature. In fact, there is only one inactive band in the list you mention, and Frost only dissolved like a week ago, though they never should have gotten back together. Dio is still proving that he can do it better. Maiden is maybe as big as they ever were now! Ozzy, yeah, what should I say. He badly needs to lose Zack Wylde and get in touch with his roots more. I still think he could do a credible metal record with a fresh guitarist and a solid, classy rhythm section and a strong producer like Rick Rubin-- someone who could get him back to the glory days, but it needs to be fresh, [and] as great as Mike Bordin is he has to go too. But shit, the dude can buy and sell me so what the fuck do I know? And Motörhead...well Lemmy said it all a few years back when he said, "We were the first and we still may be the last." You can't argue that. He hits harder than any of these kid bands and the punch is always coming from the floor. Metal might have gone underground, and there might be a lot of fake stuff out there, but it's never died, never bent and as long as there are misfit mutants out there will always be a vibrant metal scene. No one needs to save it because it's never really been in trouble you know?
Pitchfork: Conqueror's album art also taps into old-school metal-- Sword and Sorcery. Who came up with the concept? Seems like it was born to be on vinyl.
KS: Well, for me it's always worked. I'm a huge fan of Sword and Sorcery films, books, music and art...so that Frazetta style has always appealed to me strongly. Our debut record featured Brugel's "Triumph of Death" because it just fit. But on the second one Jason and I really wanted to move in that direction it was our thing as it were. The "Conan Crushing Doom" tag had been applied to us and we were both fired up about it. A few zines had pegged us as "The Manowar of Doom Metal" and that fit very well I think. And it was unique...still is. Bands have always used this imagery, but bands in our particular style not really at all. So we went in 100% with a Ken Kelly license for the legendary painting "Revenge of the Viking" on our second disc. And the reaction was pretty killer, a few bands have jumped on that bandwagon now, to our amusement, but it's cool...in the end they know. The concept originally was the title of the record. We start with a concept or a title and things flow from there, the art, the songs...for us the title becomes more a rallying cry.
Pitchfork: Did you commission it from Vebjorn Strommen? You bring up Into the Pandemonium in the liner notes (and Celtic Frost in an earlier response). At least in feel, the art reminds me of it.
KS: It was a second license. We were looking for a piece for the new record and a lot of ideas were batted around. We talked about commissioning an artist, but that was going to be out of the budget and a lot of the pieces were not grabbing me at all. I stumbled on Veb's work and sent it to Jason, the painting that ended up being the cover. Jason was into it. We made contact and the rest is the rest. I like Veb's style a lot because it evokes Frazetta or classic Ken Kelly, but it's new. There are a few other artists that I would like to work with. Hopefully we can commission a piece for the next record. I'd like to see what Veb can do.
Pitchfork: The title track's about the Robert E. Howard character King Kull? Can you explain the storyline/inspiration?
KS: Jason wrote the music for that song and it didn't have words early on, but the music fit the overall concept of Conqueror from the start. I was wracking my brains trying to come up with a concept to use for the lyrics. I fell into reading the new compendium of Kull stories that was brought out again a few years back. I honestly had never read any Kull stuff before, aside from the shorts in Savage Sword of Conan, and I was really impressed by the character and construction of the stories. Less vivid and far murkier than the Conan stuff, which sort of lends an aura of intense foreboding. Also, the character of Kull is very different than Conan. He's a philosopher first, in his heart-- more a victim of circumstance. Kind of like Elric in that sense. It's hard to imagine how Kull became King, except that he's got a rage in him that saves him, like an instinctual thing that won't let him die. His mind wants to be free of the crown, and the world for that matter...he's depressive. But his body won't let him die. I find it interesting and unique. I just started taking images and incidents from the stories and began to construct the song in that way. Lyrically, I was in the booth with a pen and the notebook making notes as the vocals were laid down. So it's at once crafted and spontaneous in that way. I didn't sing any of the songs in rehearsals because I wanted it to have a very natural and honest first impression. With that approach you lose the benefit of polish and what not, but you gain guts and impact, which I will take over polish and shine any day.
Pitchfork: So, you're more into Kull than Conan?
KS: In some respects I find the character a bit more compelling. It's been posited that Kull is more an autobiographical type of character for Howard. And Conan is an alter ego or his father writ larger than life. Conan is who he wanted to be, but Kull is who he was...this, of course, according to biographers. In the end it's a mood thing. Conan is more of an escape, a world you can slip into and really lose yourself in. More so than say Middle Earth, which was always hazy and uncertain. Hyboria is full of culture and it's a chaotic and vibrant world with a pair of power centers like in Tolkien, but more realistic in the sense that the two are not opposed by nature as Mordor and Gondor are, but more opposed in the real world sense that there are only so many pieces of pie around and each nation wants to have the most that it can. The strongest are the strongest and the rest fall into line behind ancestral or religious or racial lines. Hyboria has that honest feel-- the cruelty is real, the attitudes are real. Good and Evil are not factors in the traditional sense. Noble people are often totally fucked over in Howard's world and the cruel are similarly rewarded...just like in the world we know. And Conan as our avatar in this world is an anti-hero; he's a cold-blooded killer. It's nothing for him to butcher someone over the slightest insult-- rather like some romantic version of a hardened convict or something. His word is his bond and he's got a crude but true sense of chivalry. But he's through and through a barbarian, walking through the horror of his world knowing that he's got nothing to fear. No money? He'll kill who he needs to and steal it. He's ultimately free of the society in which he moves. It's myth on a more detailed scale, and thus compelling to read and easy to slip into. Boss gives you shit over something pointless? You can always slide away into a world where you can hack his belly open for it. Is it "high literature"... no. But for fast paced fiction that fills you with a rush of excitement...well, it's pulp at its best. Howard is also a poet, so the stories have that feel in the sentences.
Pitchfork: In the liner notes, you talk about "Eyes of the Liar" being a departure lyrically for the band-- they're personal, as opposed to mythological or steeped in books. The lyrics are pretty angry. Who's the subject of the song?
KS: Well, I'd rather not say. Some people close to the band and our circle know what's up, others may be able to conclude who it's about, but in the end it's just about a real bastard, a 24-karat motherfucker. It's best to just let old wounds heal up and move on; and really everyone except the subject has. This album has a lot of departures for us lyrically.
Pitchfork: Speaking of which, can Jason talk some about "Children of Satan", his song about Darfur?
Jason McCash: Well the song is basically about the genocide that is taking place in Darfur and how people are so quick to color it in whatever light that their political leanings are, meanwhile trying their damnedest to not recognize the true reasons why it is going on. Yes, there is a drought that has taken place in Sudan and the farmlands in Darfur are rich with water, which the capital so desperately needs. Yes, there is a lot of oil there for all the western and eastern nations to whore those children out on. And, yes, there are rebels from the farmlands that are attacking the national armies. However, when you look at the ones that are committing all the atrocities, the Janjaweed, their real reason in why they are killing off every woman and child they come across is because most of the ethnic Africans in Darfur are Christian and the Janjaweed (who are Arab Africans) believe it is their religious duty to take the land and basically cleanse it. So lyrically, I wanted the song be written from the point of view of the Janjaweed. Trying to express what it is that goes through their minds while they are taking white airplanes that look like UN relief planes and that usually drop food and aid to the refugees, only to drop bombs on them instead. I thought that it would be an unusual point of view-- one that no one really takes, but from that point of view, a sinister brutality can be shown. As for Karl's part of the lyrics, he basically added the third verse, he felt that it would add a bit more to the song if it concluded with a note of outrage towards the international community: While the U.S. and its allies are invading countries and the Chinese and Russians are buying out countries, that neither at the end of the day shows any sense of obligation to stop the genocide in Darfur. Specifically in the U.S. When the Clinton administration basically said that it was to blame for not stopping the genocide in Rwanda during the 90s, vowing "never again," meanwhile the Bush administration hasn't lifted a finger to stop this genocide.
Pitchfork: The album ends with the 17-minute "Dark Valley Suite", which is described as a "musical tribute" to Howard. We've spoken about his writing and characters. Can you talk specifically about the author's importance to you?
KS: I think there has always been this frantic aspect to Howard's writing that appealed to me early on-- a desperation and a power that touched me when I was very young and has just stuck. It's akin to how Black Sabbath touched me as a young kid. It's a pronounced lack of plasticity in the work, a metal as it were...and I'm paraphrasing my friend Dave Burns here: Howard/Sabbath created works that are not easy to fit into the world, to a degree the world has to bend around it. I think that fans of this kind of stuff have that inflexible trait to themselves in some way: I've always felt out of place in the world and that writing, that music...those things speak to that feeling in my gut and they also speak about the kindred feelings in the people who created it and it makes things easier. Because who wants to be made of plastic anyway? Who really wants to constantly reinvent one's self in an attempt to become someone who doesn't need to reinvent one's self? No, what you get is what you see. "Dark Valley" is based on the biography by L. Sprague DeCamp, Dark Valley Destiny. It details one story of Howard's early life and the extremely dysfunctional family he lived in. In spite of my horrid grades in school I was able to get into University and in my short time there I did study a bit about abnormal psych. Also my work experience with the mentally handicapped and mentally ill gave me enough lay knowledge to conclude that it's a possibility that Howard was a schizophrenic, and perhaps Conan, Kull, Kane, Hyboria, Cimmeria, Kush, Shadizar...perhaps these places were hallucinations that were just on the edge of his consciousness at all times. There is the story about how he felt like Conan was behind him telling him the stories as he wrote them. That is the subject of "Black River". "Lines" is a poem by Howard that I started to sing on New Year's Eve this year...by morning the music was arranged as well as the vocals. "Call of the Black Gods" is Jason's musical highlight on the record, "Black River II" is the closing volley and the opening volley at the same time.
Pitchfork: Have you read the pieces that tie Howard's work, Conan specifically, to fascism?
KS: Well, I don't think that anything ever tied him to fascism...Howard was an individualist in his heart of hearts. He loved freedom too much to ever be a fascist-- it's diametrically opposed to his entire worldview. He was convinced that civilization itself led to decadence and degeneration, even to the point where people could de-evolve or at least become so degenerated that they could no longer repair the tools their ancestors made. And there is nothing that can stop this according to Howard. Once people become civilized they start to weaken and eventually they must fall over. Now a racialist would have you believe that if you keep the bloodlines pure then everything is okay. Howard doesn't subscribe to this at all-- even though there is evidence that he was a "follower" of Madam Blavatsky. But at least in the confines of his writing Howard does not seem to buy into the magic blood of the Aryan race. In fact, he believed that the Gaelic peoples were the best, not the Germanic. Anyway: Highly developed societies breed degenerates, and weaklings are the basic motif in all of Howard's work. I think that one would find that he was a pro-confederate who disliked the strong central government that was established with our Civil War: A states' rights nut. He was also a racist. That is something that Howard without a doubt was: To the bone he was a Southerner of his era, at least outwardly. And that means he was a racist...and frankly if we take note of the fact that in his time the Ku Klux Klan was the largest fraternity in the nation, he was not alone, and does not deserve to bear more than his share of the burden for that. Really I think if we knew more about the artists we like we would have fewer reasons to like them.
Pitchfork: You talk a bit about his mental illness in the liner notes-- that he killed himself when learning his mother wouldn't recover from her illness and herself would die.
KS: Well, you also have to realize that his suicide was the completion of a pack she had him make when he was a young kid, eight years old or so. So that magnifies the bizarre nature of his life. But all of this came into the light for me only in the last decade or so, before it was his work, and the character of Conan. The world he created with all of its color. I think it's under-celebrated, and in a way I wish that fewer people knew about it or cared, because you have people working overtime to try and find an acceptable way to deal with Howard's flaws in the context of our modern age. For the real fan nothing can change the opinion of Howard or at least his writing. I think though that the Gates of Slumber are all but finished with the topic...and I'm proud to say that we do not have one song about Conan himself! Which is hard to do. There are other anti-heroes lurking in the shadows with stories that aren't so well known, but faces that are maybe better known. Of course, if a killer line pops into my head the whole next record could be about Conan alone...who knows?
Conqueror is out next week on Profound Lore. The Gates of Slumber are working out their live itinerary as we speak. Check their MySpace for updates (and streaming tracks).
Gates Of Slumber play a Conqueror record release show at the Melody Inn in Indianapolis on May 27th.